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Five red flags that will help you spot fake influencers

Over the past five years, a steadily increasing number of brands have been adding influencer collaborations to their marketing repertoire.

Staying true to the law of supply and demand, the rise in popularity of influencer marketing lead to the introduction of 320 new platforms and influencer agencies in 2018, totaling at least 740. That’s more than double as many agencies and platforms that were alive and kicking in 2016.

Marketers aren’t the only ones who have jumped on the influencer marketing train. Every day, countless individuals make the decision to chase their dreams of social media fame and step into the influencer world. Most don’t make it far due to their lack of commitment. Others attempt to fake it until they make it.

As with any growing industry that has proven lucrative, there are people trying to take advantage of the opportunity. That’s where influencer fraud comes into play. Many brands are afraid to dive head-first into the influencer marketing world due to their fear of falling victim to this fraud.

It’s true; there are many “influencers” out there who have purchased followers, likes, or comments. But here are five red flags that shouldn’t be ignored in order to avoid collaboration with fake influencers.

Five red flags for fake influencers:

1. Rapid growth of followers

Follower growth rate can be used as a tool for finding the best up-and-coming influencers. Organic follower growth shows that an influencer is consistently building his or her audience by posting high-quality content. Influencers who have a steady increase in followers are exactly the type of content creators that you should be targeting for your campaigns.

However, when an influencer purchases followers (or bots), you might see a more sudden increase. While some marketers argue that any growth is positive, these fake followers will not lead to realistic KPIs for your collaboration. Accurately reporting on engagement and impressions is key to constant improvement in your marketing.

One quick way to test this is to compare the number of posts with the number of followers. If the numbers don’t match up, something fishy is going on.

It should be noted that large spikes in followers aren’t the only way to know an influencer is faking it. Marketers should also be wary of sudden drops in follower count when researching influencers.

2. Unusually low engagement rate

Engagement rate is one of the top metrics used for influencer campaign reporting. When searching for an influencer, it’s important to note their average engagement rate. Simply add the number of comments to the number of likes and divide by the number of followers. Multiply that number by 100 to get the percentage.

Defining what a “good” engagement rate is can be a bit of a tricky task. Several factors weigh in here including platform, industry, and reach. For instance, the average engagement rate of a macro-influencer in 2017 was 1.5%. Meanwhile, an influencer with less than 10k followers could expect an average engagement rate of 4.9% or higher.

As a standard, you can evaluate engagement rates as follows:

If an influencer has a decent following but seems to lack in the engagements department, this should be a major red flag. Their low engagement is likely due to the fake accounts that are following them but aren’t truly part of the community. Even if the accounts aren’t fake, a low engagement rate is a sign that an influencer is losing the trust of their audience.

3. Consistently off-topic comments

When looking at engagements, don’t simply take the quantitative approach. Instead, you should manually sort through the comments on the influencer’s content to see how the audience is engaging.

By looking at the engagements through a qualitative lense, you might notice that the comments seem to be off-topic, lackluster, or even strange. Influencer fraud doesn’t just involve buying followers. It can also include paying for engagements.

One red flag you might notice in the comments section would be an excess of emoji-only responses. Similarly, if the comments are short, stereotypical phrases such as “great pic!” or entirely unrelated to the theme of the post, this is a sign of bots engaging.

A few of these off-hand comments are inevitable. After all, even the most successful influencers will have frauds who are engaging with them simply to catch the attention of the real influencers’ followers. It’s the influencers with the overload of these comments you must be wary of.

4. Skewed ratio of followers to following

Did you know that Instagram blocks users from following more than 7,500 people? This limit was set to reduce spam and fake accounts. Can you imagine how cluttered your feed would be if you followed even close to 7,500 people? It would be a nightmare!

Most influencers who have organically built their brand will have a larger following than the number of accounts that they follow. A quick check of these numbers can tell you a lot about an influencer. An account who follows thousands of others is likely doing so in the hopes that they will get a follow back. That is not how you build an engaged audience. Avoid these accounts when setting up campaigns.

5. Your gut instinct is saying that something is wrong

Of course, it’s important to run the numbers and look at the data when analyzing an influencer. However, you should never underestimate the power of some manual digging. The best marketers will take their time diving into influencers photos, videos, blog posts, and other social shares before deeming them a good fit for their brand or client.

While doing a qualitative analysis, do not ignore your gut instinct. If an influencer’s KPIs seem too good to be true, they probably are. See an influencer who has an incredible engagement rate but you can’t get behind the quality of their content? They’ve likely purchased those engagements.

Don’t ignore your gut instinct simply because the numbers seem strong. There are plenty more influencers in the sea, so to say.


Having a plan in place while researching influencers should help you to avoid falling into the influencer fraud trap. There’s no fool-proof method, but being wary of these five red flags will lead to more successful collaborations.

When all else fails, marketers can hold on to the hope that regulations will soon be in place to make the influencer hunt easier. Just last month, a settlement was reached in New York that marked the first time a law enforcement agency found selling fake social media engagement to be illegal. With any luck, influencer fraud will be a thing of the past in five years time.

Jessica Butner is Senior Manager, Influencer Marketing at Go Fish Digital. She can be found on Twitter at @JessGoFish.

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